What’s Next for Federal Unions?

question-marks-2215_640The transition from divided government to a single party controlling the House, Senate and White House is likely to result in a renewed interest in changing the laws, rules and regulations that govern the civil service. I plan to write several posts on what might or might not happen in civil service reform, starting with collective bargaining and the way it works in the federal government.

It is safe to say that unions have become a more partisan issue. Democrats generally like them, Republicans generally do not. It is likely we will see some changes that affect both the representational aspects of labor relations and the institutional issues that affect the unions themselves.

The institutional issues relate to how unions get the resources they need to effectively represent employees. The two biggest factors are official time and dues withholding. In recent years there have been proposals that would eliminate the ability of employees to sign a dues withholding form to have dues taken from their pay. The alternative would be to use allotments or to have people pay the unions directly. There are a lot of reasons why proponents think it is a good idea, but the bottom line is it would make it harder for unions to get money.

The second institutional issue is also a representational issue – official time. Official time is the time union stewards and other officials use for representational issues. It is time on the clock and the taxpayers foot the bill. OPM reports the cost at more than $150 million per year. Because official time is typically under-reported, the actual cost is likely higher than that. Opponents of that spending argue it is a subsidy for unions. Proponents of official time say it provides enough benefits to agencies that the government gets more than it pays. They also argue that unions in government are required by law to represent people who are in the bargaining unit but who do not pay dues.

I expect to see attempts to either eliminate or substantially weaken official time and to make it harder for unions to collect dues. Whether or not such proposals are passed will depend on how much of a fight supporters of collective bargaining (particularly in the Senate) are willing to put up.

One important thing to remember about collective bargaining is that it is considered by industrialized nations to be a fundamental right. We are so programmed in this town to see everything through the lens of politics that sometimes we lose sight of that. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States was among the greatest proponents of the declaration, with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt playing a leading role in writing it. Article 23 of the UDHR says “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” Mrs. Roosevelt said in her “My Day” column “The United States delegation considered that the right to form and join trade unions was an essential element of freedom.”

Rather than looking at the politics of the current state of labor relations in government, I believe the Congress should look at alternative constructs that would guarantee the basic right of employees to form unions, but also would incentivize those unions to be more effective and to operate more with dues than with government subsidies. That would require a substantial rethinking of our approach to collective bargaining. For example, one of the basic tenets of collective bargaining in the United States is “exclusive representation.” In exclusive representation, the employees elect a single union to represent their interests. Once elected, the union tends to be there forever unless another union attempts to “raid” the unit through a new election. The limits on such elections make it uncommon to see a union replaced with a new one.

When the Department of Homeland Security was looking at options for collective bargaining for Transportation Security Officers, we had the flexibility under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to come up with any framework we thought would work. One option we seriously considered (that was ultimately rejected by the Secretary and the White House) was a non-exclusive representation arrangement. It would have allowed individual employees to join a union of their choice (or no union), subject to that union having a showing of 10% or more members of the bargaining unit. A showing would be demonstrated by paying dues rather than by an election. If more than one union had 10%, they could also represent employees. During collective bargaining, the unions would jointly bargain with management to establish a single contract that would cover every union. If a union fell below 10%, it would no longer be able to bargain for employees. Our intent in developing the construct was that unions would basically be in a free market competing for members, with the result being more engaged unions that provided better services to the employees they represent. It would allow them to choose their union based on how that union was meeting members’ needs and getting results. Ineffective unions would be out and effective unions would grow. Employees who chose not to join a union would not have union representation at all.

The arrangement would have been dramatically different from traditional American labor relations. It is not, however, a wild idea that came from nowhere. It was based on an approach that is widely used outside North America (including many of our allies) and would have provided a testing ground for a new approach that might have the benefit of reducing the government’s cost of bargaining, while providing employees with stronger and more effective unions. It would also have eliminated the “free rider” problem that unions representing government employees face. Because the federal labor relations statute (5 USC Chapter 71) requires the union to represent employees who do not pay dues, unions spend a lot of their time representing people who pay nothing. That is one of the reasons “official time” is required.

Rather than approaching labor relations reform solely in the context of politics or the traditional “us vs. them” adversarial approach that many labor relations specialists and union officials seem so wedded to, we should try to find an approach that works for the agencies, works for the employees, and works for the taxpayers. This is one approach that might do all three while protecting a basic right.



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Giving Thanks for Federal Workers

Thank-you-pinned-noteThis is a update of a post I wrote 2 years ago. My thoughts have not changed and I still appreciate all of the work federal employees do every day.

It is Thanksgiving week and before everyone heads out of the office to take a well-deserved holiday, I want to give thanks for our Federal workforce. Fed-bashing may be a popular sport in some places, but not in my home. I believe that majority of Federal employees do a great job, care about their work, do more than is necessary, support their co-workers in times or need, and provide tremendous benefit to the American people.

Let’s look at just a few things Federal employees do.

They support our troops. The Department of Defense relies heavily upon 700K Federal employees to provide supplies, rebuild ships, aircraft and other equipment, provide IT, financial management and personnel support, conduct intelligence work, and countless other tasks that enable our men and women in uniform to carry out their missions.

They collect revenue. Some folks might wonder why I would be thankful for tax collectors, but I like roads, our military, the social security program, and many other aspects of what our government does. None of that happens without the taxes collected by the IRS.

They protect our food supply, environment and medicines. Federal workers inspect our food, promote agriculture, provide assistance to small and large farms, regulate pollutants, review new drugs to ensure their efficacy and safety, and manage over 200 million acres of National Forests and Wilderness Areas.

They preserve and operate our National Parks. The US has a spectacular array of National Parks, ranging from Yosemite to Yellowstone and as unique as Wolf Trap, the only National Park for the Performing Arts.

They ensure we can travel safely by air, rail and highways. They forecast the weather and help us understand when dangerous storms can put us at risk, manage fisheries, explore outer space, and conduct groundbreaking medical and scientific research.

They respond to natural and man-made disasters, protect our borders, promote legitimate commerce and protect American businesses and consumer from counterfeit goods and currency.

They run the Social Security program, Medicare, and Veterans programs, along with many more that are too numerous to list in one blog post.

I don’t think we take time to say thank you often enough. We learned following the bitter years of the Viet Nam war that we can honor the warrior even when we do not want the war. The same applies to the Federal workforce. Whether we think our Federal government is too big, too small or just right, we can respect Federal workers for what they do for us every day and say Thank You.

So this Thanksgiving week – Thank you Federal employees. Thank you for you loyalty, your dedication, your hard work, and the difference you make in America. I appreciate it – and you – very much.



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